He kissed my forehead to say goodbye that morning.
It was after a night of drinking on a patio at a small guesthouse in Lijiang, Yunnan. After dropping off the other passengers in the city, he insisted that I came with him to have dinner and drink together before we parted ways.
I met this Tibetan middle-aged man a few days ago in Deqin, a town north of Shangri-la, where the majority of the population is Tibetan. It is set against the Meilin snow-capped mountains, the destination of my 28th birthday trip. I planned to retreat to a small village for a few days.
It was noon when I arrived in this town alone. When I was walking on the road with my backpack, a car stopped next to me. A man lowered the car window.
“Are you also going to Yubeng village? Come with us. We are staying with this Tibetan driver tonight, then we will start the trek from his village tomorrow morning,” he told me. In the car sat another woman, who also looked like a tourist.
Without a doubt, I hopped on the car to join the group. For the next four days, I went trekking with them.
That night, we stayed at this Tibetan man’s place. In his humble farmhouse, we had a feast and drank to the trek we were soon to embark on. Later on, everyone left the table, except him and me.
“Do you believe in the Dalai Lama?” I asked him when no one else was around. The question caught him by surprise.
“Yes, we believe in him, but we cannot talk about him,” he told me. He then began to tell me more stories.
Both of us spoke Mandarin with a funny accent, so we talked slowly to each other – but in-depth. He told me how he got tracked by the police every time he visited his family in Lhasa, how the Tibetan people in Yunnan and Tibet are different from each other, and how he felt about the government.
“Without religion, we wouldn’t be Tibetan, even though there are cultural differences between us,” he said.
For Tibetans in Tibet, they say ‘do che che’ as thank you. Here in Yunnan, they say ‘jia non.’ In Yunnan, they grow crops. In Tibet, they keep animals.
Sitting in his living room and sipping homemade grape wine, I looked around and saw a poster of Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping. I asked him why.
“After all, Mao made life better for us. I don’t agree with what the Communist Party does nowadays. There’s no freedom for us. But Mao did improve our lives,” he said.
There is a road cutting through his village, connecting the locals better with the outside world. Farmers grow grapes and load them in a truck. Construction materials are brought in to build more and better houses. Tourists also stop by on their way to the snow-capped mountains. Locals turn their homes into guesthouses.
The Tibetan man speaks fluent Mandarin, so does his wife, who is also Tibetan. He drives the tourists around while she prepares breakfast and dinner for them. The wife only studied in Mandarin at school.
“I live like a Han Chinese. But I’m still Tibetan at heart because of my religion,” he told me when I asked if he felt more of Han Chinese or Tibetan.
I also asked him what he wanted the most in life. “Freedom,” he replied, but offered no further explanation. The conversation ended and we called it a night.
The next day morning we woke up to drizzle, but it did not stop us from starting our trek. The Tibetan man drove us to the starting point and said he would pick us up a few days later when we returned from Yubeng village.
After a day of trekking in the rain, fog and mud, I stayed in this small village hidden between the mountains for three days. The rain went on for two days, but it didn’t ruin my mood. We were far from the outside world, away from the woes and throes.
The Tibetan man and I kept in touch. “I will come pick you up if you want to leave early,” he said to me in a text when I told him it’d been raining here.
We met again a few days later when the others and I returned from trekking. He drove us to a hotel in Deqin to stay for a night and said he would come back the next day morning to take us back to Lijiang.
“Let’s go drinking together in Lijiang tomorrow night!” he said to me. I nodded my head. Suggesting eating and drinking together is a common way to show hospitality in China. I wasn’t sure if he was being serious or just saying it. The others, however, definitely did not take him seriously.
But he kept his word. The next day he came with a 5-litre bucket filled with homemade barley wine.
The journey from Deqin to Lijiang took seven hours on winding roads. I took the front seat to take in the view. Each turn unveiled a beautiful scene with snow-capped mountains, green pine trees, cute cottages and animals. We were descending from above 3000 meters to 2000 something meters.
On our way, he introduced me to different places. At one point we stopped to take photos of a lake. He asked me to stand in front of the lake and took a photo of me.
When we finally reached Lijiang in the late afternoon, the others got off one by one. It marked the end of our brief encounter. I was the last one in the car.
“We will drink together tonight. I booked you a room at a guesthouse already,” the Tibetan man told me. Even though I already had plans to stay somewhere else, at that moment I couldn’t say no.
I followed him to the guesthouse, got my own room, left my bags, went out for dinner with him, then sat down on the patio in our guesthouse. We poured wine for each other and drank in paper cups.
“The Dalai Lama is not a separatist. He only seeks peace,” he opened our conversation with this statement.
I then understood why he insisted that I came with him. For the whole time, he had been waiting for this moment – when he could find a person to talk about the dismay of his people.
For years, Beijing has been accusing the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, of seeking independence for Tibet. For China, territorial integrity is above all. The Dalai Lama has been in exile since 1959.
“The government makes us richer nowadays and gives us a good life. Those who don’t have enough money can even get subsidies. But religion is a taboo. They say the Dalai Lama is a bad person, but he is not,” he told me.
The fate of another spiritual leader of Tibet, the Panchen Lama, is also tragic. The Chinese government has been accused of kidnapping the 11th Panchen Lama, who is recognized by the Dalai Lama in exile.
“The real Panchen Lama is under home arrest. He’s been missing for a long time and rumour has it that he’s in Beijing. He did good things for people. The money he got was all donated to monasteries. He never took a penny. He even constructed the road,” he said.
“I don’t understand what the Communist Party is doing. This is wrong,” he said. He told me again how the police would call him at 9pm to track his whereabouts every time he visited Tibet.
“The government says it gives us money. Let’s say 5000 yuan. But they actually give us only 2000 yuan. The rest is in their pocket, but we cannot speak up,” he continued.
Tibet, once a country until 1951, has become a popular destination in China today with new roads and railways. Namtso Lake, which the Tibetans consider sacred, is no longer only kept to themselves.
“For seven years, the military was building something near the lake. Rumour had it that they were extracting materials that were used to develop nuclear weapons. We the locals never knew what was going on there. The military vehicles came out covered in black cloth. We never knew what they were taking from there. Every time I drove past the lake, I wasn’t allowed to get close,” he told me.
Apparently, money cannot buy Tibetan people’s happiness.
“Money isn’t the most important. Even if I earn more than I need, I still live my life the way it is. It’s more important to do good deeds and keep friends,” he said.
We talked briefly about his family. He has two granddaughters whom he is very proud of. They both study in university.
“Let the girls do whatever they want. Nowadays it’s up to the kids. We don’t say anything,” he said with a smile. Gone are the days when marriages were arranged and early.
This is how the Tibetans are nowadays: they speak Mandarin and live a life like anyone else’s. But they know they are Tibetan because of a common faith they share, which unfortunately cannot be discussed openly today.
As he finished his stories, we emptied our paper cups. It was time to say goodnight. He had to wake up early to pick up another group of Chinese tourists.
The next day morning I woke up early to wait outside of his room. He was surprised to see me. I walked together with him to his car.
I couldn’t be more grateful for his hospitality and his stories. After all, we met twice only. He told me to come back to see him next year, so he could take me to the unexplored parts in eastern Tibet.
In front of his car, we hugged. Then he kissed my forehead and said goodbye.